I could pretend that I wasn’t slightly baffled by this comic, and try to be objective about its visually appealing art and its rather nuanced storytelling, separating it surgically from the fact that I grew up with the cartoon and played endlessly with the He-Man figures with my siblings. But the more entrenched those childhood memories are, the harder it is to react without sentimental overload.
This comic, firstly, is a very unfamiliar world to those who have only watched the cartoon. This is partly because the first issue follows on from a mini-series they might not have read, and so does not make it a point to focus on the distinctive, simplistic, iconic images from the TV show or toy-line. There is no Skeletor visible in issue #1, no focus on Grayskull as a location. What we do have are zones that were not as fully explored in the show, and that broadens the world of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. That is actually a good thing. It just may throw new HE-MAN comics readers for a loop.
Visually, the comic is rather strong. The static, ungainly animation of the 80’s cartoon series has been sloughed off with extreme prejudice, thankfully. It’s now lithe, active, well-muscled (and only a little over the top in skin-flashing), but perhaps most importantly, visually grounded in the gleaming city of Eterno, which is so pristine and even celestial in atmosphere that again, you wonder what world you’ve stepped into. Eterno sets the tone for the comic. The denizens of the land of Eternia represent order here, and have something to fight for. It’s a heightened sense of beauty and spiritual perspective, grace and calm. In fact, the story opens with a spiritually-focused funeral for a deceased sorceress. We can thank Pop Mhan for the serious, and not campy hyper-masculine style, in which he depicts both Adam, aka He-Man, and other characters.
The colors in the comic, by Kathryn Laynd, are more vivid than in the cartoon, but they are still fairly well balanced to the thematic values of the show, just brightened up a notch. The colors work, and contribute to the energy of the comic well. In combination with Mhan’s artwork, #1 is a viable contender for the attention of fantasy comic fans.
If Eterno feels like a development, sheerly from it’s uplifting atmosphere and sense of an ordered society, there are also significant developments in the way in which villains are portrayed. Hordak doesn’t show up right away, but his daughter Despara is truly creepy, bringing in some true blue horror elements in her striking grotesque mask-face. Hordak is pretty gruesome in his own right, suggesting that the visual extremes in the comic, between the gleaming city of Eterno and the dark plots of Hordak, were part of the plan. It works well to establish essential conflicts in the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE in visual terms. The violence in the comic is also emphasized and brought up to 21st century comics expectations. Look out for a beheading presented in silhouette.
The plot and dialogue are a little hard to follow for those who didn’t read the previous mini-series. The dialogue, particularly, is very modern and quip-based, which may be a plus, but could be toned down a notch in favor of clearer storytelling. In combination with the artwork, however, it’s possible to follow and get the hang of this new take on the mythology of He-Man. A tip of the hat to Keith Giffen for openly discussing the relationship between technology and magic in the comic, something that’s increasingly a trope of genre-mixing between horror and fantasy comics, and something that’s bound to make fans happy as they consider the ways in which “old style” magic may still counterbalance superior technology from another dimension when it comes to Eternia and its heroes, a land based on a mage system.
It’s a brisk shock to the system reading this #1 issue, particularly with expectations drawn from the cartoon and the toy-line, but shows an awareness on the part of the creators that they need to step up and make it a relevant comic that engages with wider genre issues. Objectively, as a comic, it has some strengths, and certainly the potential to blaze new territory for readers. I hope to see more of the familiar in the future, since those action figures and play sets are emblazoned on my mind, but as long as they have a strong story to tell in an energetic style, the creative team have done their job and balanced homage with a fresh start for HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.
Title: HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE #1
Publisher: DC Comics
Creative Team: Keith Giffen, writer/Pop Mhan, art/Kathryn Laynd, colors/Saida Temofonte, letters/ Michael McCalister, editor
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.